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New York Jewish Week: "New Tactics By Settlers Worrying Authorities"

Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer for Peace Now...said the price tag campaign of the settler extreme has been discussed for months on Internet forums and in weekly pamphlets circulated within the movement.


by Joshua Mitnick
Israel Correspondent

Yitzhar, West Bank - Three years after Israel evacuated 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip, newly emboldened settlers have embarked on a stepped-up campaign of vigilantism against Palestinians, left-wing activists and Israeli security forces.

In recent months settlers have raided Palestinian villages as retaliation, or a "price tag," for terrorist attacks, blocked roads following the military evacuation of caravans of trailers, and clashed with activists who act as human shields for Palestinians. Now, as the annual olive harvest moves into full swing, there are almost daily clashes between settlers and Palestinian farmers in what is being reported as a marked escalation of violence compared to recent years.

The trend - which includes the recent bombing of the home of Hebrew University Professor Zeev Sternhell, a harsh critic of Israel's settlements - has prompted protests by human rights groups as well as statements of concern by the army's top brass and politicians.

But settler supporters of the price tag campaign say the real target of the vigilantism is deterring the government from a repeat of the 2005 Gaza settlement evacuation in the West Bank.

"Before now, there was Sinai and Gush Katif, and Jews thought they couldn't do anything to prevent it," said Hanan Herbst, a 21-year-old resident of this hilltop settlement where he lives in a beat-up trailer with a wife and year-old daughter. "All of a sudden, you say 'price tag,' and it can influence people to think they can do something."

With the olive harvest has come a heightened alert among Palestinians, settlers, the army and human rights workers for an uptick in violence.

The United Nations released figures in recent weeks saying the number of attacks on Palestinians in the first half of this year nearly matched the figure for all of 2007. The spike was confirmed by Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, head of the Central Command, who told the Haaretz newspaper that the number of settlers involved in vigilantism has grown from dozens to hundreds.

"[They] are engaged in conspiratorial actions against Palestinians and the security forces. It's a very grave phenomenon," he told the newspaper. "The margins [in the settler community] are expanding, because they are enjoying a tailwind and the backing of part of the leadership, both rabbinical and public, whether in explicit statements or tacitly." 

One of the bases of the most ideologically and theologically zealous settlers, Yitzhar residents are known for taking their own retribution  against Palestinians - most recently a rampage through the village of Asira al-Qabilya in retaliation for the stabbing attack on a 9-year-old resident of the settlement.

"I saw [the attacker] raise the window slats," said Revital Ofran as she walked to her back stoop recounting the prelude to the stabbing attack. "I understood it wasn't someone coming to wake me up for the Slichot prayers."  

The settler retaliation, she insisted, filled a vacuum left by a military more interested in protecting Palestinians than settlers. "We prefer to be strong, make a little chaos, and suffer the criticism, rather being weak and eulogized. ... It's not a rebellion - it's a reminder that they have a job, and that if they don't do it someone else will."

While most settlements are surrounded by a military-patrolled perimeter fence, there is no such barrier separating Yitzhar from the four Palestinian villages that surround it at the base of the mountaintop.

A walk through the center of settlement reveals the words "Death to Arabs"  scrawled in graffiti near the grocery store and posters on public notice boards calling for the cancellation of the military "expulsion" order banning one of its residents from the West Bank.

When approached by reporters, many Yitzhar residents, wary of hostile media coverage, recommend calling the settlement's spokesperson.

But unlike many of the media-shy residents of these remote West Bank mountaintops, Herbst invites a visitor to partake in Sukkot blessings, snacks and tea. With an oversized knit skullcap, dangling sidelocks and a thick beard, Herbst looks like a poster boy for the infamous "hilltop youth," the occupants of the settlement outposts seen as illegal in the eyes of the government.

Herbst brags he's been banned from the West Bank by a military restraining order three times and served jail time for throwing stones at Palestinian motorists. Herbst has been living in the settlement since he was 16 as a student at Yosef Hai Yeshiva, a seminary whose spiritual mentor is U.S.-born Chabad Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg.

He insists he's not involved in the recent vigilantism, but remains a supporter of the actions. In contrast to Ofran, Herbst says the price tag campaign is more than just pressure for the government - it's the beginnings of a settler rebellion against a state in moral, political and spiritual decay.

"We hope that a leader will come and unite all of us," he says, comparing the Israeli government to the corrupt last days of the biblical Israelite King Saul. "The government is going through its death throes."

Settlers like himself, meanwhile, are building their own rule in the West Bank.

Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer for Peace Now who represents Palestinians before the Israeli Supreme Court, said the price tag campaign of the settler extreme has been discussed for months on Internet forums and in weekly pamphlets circulated within the movement.

In a recent briefing to reporters, he said that rights groups warned the government six months ago of the new tactic.

"This no longer spontaneous. It's well-organized with a purpose of stopping military activity to dismantle outposts by inciting the field," he said. "This is the logic: the army, the government and the State of Israel should know that the continued evacuation of outposts will incur a price."

Sfard speculated that the price tag campaign was prompted by Israel's peace talks with the Palestinians, as well as concern that the government would comply with a Supreme Court decision declaring the outpost of Migron as Palestinian-owned land.

Israeli media reports of settler attacks on soldiers have spurred descriptions of the West Bank as a Wild West rampant with settler lawlessness. Palestinians routinely accuse settlers of burning and uprooting their trees.

"[Settlers] make chaos regardless of whether there's an intifada or not," said Hassan Awat, a village mayor near the settlement of Itamar who accused residents of uprooting 300 olive saplings and stealing olives from others.

Settlers, meanwhile, have alleged that trees near their communities provide cover for potential terrorists. Further, they don't recognize Palestinian ownership of trees near the settlement.

"The territory in open spaces is ours just as much as theirs," said Ofran.

Army spokesman Elie Isaacson called the friction "totally a police issue. It's not our jurisdiction. It's fighting between civilians."

Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter said the police lack the resources to battle the vigilantism at a recent Knesset committee meeting. Mickey Rosenfeld, a police spokesperson, said that in the last six months the police have boosted manpower, technology and undercover agents to combat the settler extremists.

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a director of Rabbis for Human Rights said that the settlers are "pulling out everything they've got" to prevent further withdrawals, which they believe are innocent. He said that the issue came into the Israeli public consciousness after the vigilantes began targeting Israeli security forces.

"Nobody really cares about violence against Palestinians, but people get upset when they attack the security forces," he said. "The hand that strikes the non-Jew will eventually strike the Jew."

Back at Yitzhar, Herbst, who keeps a picture on his wall of Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzchak Rabin, paints the conflict in sharp contrasts. "In a war, according to the Torah, there no such thing as non-combatants. You're either living or dead. Either the Arabs surrender, or they should die."